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Making Do For Special Ops

Sep 6, 2011

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A significant aspect of the Aug. 6 shoot-down of a U.S. Army Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter by a militant’s rocket-propelled grenade in Wardak, Afghanistan, which killed all 38 Afghan and American forces onboard—25 of whom were members of U.S. special operations—is that while the bird was on a special forces mission, it wasn’t a special operations aircraft.

While such tragedies are a cost of war, and neither the helicopter nor the regular Army crew piloting it has been blamed for the incident, the shoot-down underscores two serious and long-standing concerns: inadequate protection for low-flying rotorcraft against gunfire and rudimentary rockets, and the lack of sufficient dedicated rotary-wing assets for special forces.

At a special forces technology conference in Tampa, Fla., this summer, commanders from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOC) said they were looking for more money from the services to invest in new rotary-wing aircraft. “We’re going to hopefully guide the services into giving us something that is useful for us,” said Army Col. Doug Rombough, program executive officer for rotary-wing aircraft at SOC. “We certainly don’t have the budget or funding to guide a whole new generation of aircraft.”

Special operators are putting more focus than ever on rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft needs, standing up the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (SOAC) at Ft. Bragg, N.C., in March, with the goal of allowing the commander of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regt. (SOAR) to focus on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the SOAC commander focuses on the funding and equipping goals of special operations aviation. While the Boeing MH-47G Chinooks that are the workhorses of the spec op fleet are upwards of half a century old, there are much newer aircraft that spec op forces have been flying.

Beginning in 2009, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) started receiving the first of 50 planned Bell-Boeing CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft, delivery of which is scheduled to be complete by 2015. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review also laid out goals for spec op rotary-wing assets, including “165 tiltrotor/fixed-wing mobility and fire-support primary mission aircraft,” stipulating that the Army and SOC “will add a company of upgraded cargo helicopters (MH-47G) to the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regt., and the Navy will dedicate two helicopter squadrons for direct support to naval special warfare units.”

All this is happening as the incoming head of the command—Vice Adm. William McRaven—wrote in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June that SOC’s “current operations will pressure development and limit required modernization and recapitalization efforts” of its rotary fleets. This in turn is resulting in a “lack of vertical lift capability to train [spec op] ground forces and aircrew proficiency” and is hurting the overall health and readiness of the force.

The high-hot conditions and high operational tempo at maximum weights that the helicopters are working under in Afghanistan, Rombough said, have taken a toll on the fleet. “They’re making only 15 years because of heavy use,” he said, which falls far short of the usual 20-year lifespan. When it comes to new platforms, he added, “we need game-changers . . . we are behind the power curve already if all of our aircraft hit at that same timeline.” While the Pentagon is looking for a rotorcraft capable of 170 kt., Rombough said special operators need “a minimum 200-kt. capability.”

Life cycle is one thing. Survivability in a combat zone is another. Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) launched an experimental program that borrowed a land vehicle-based gunshot detection system—Boomerang—and installed a version on a Black Hawk helicopter. Named the Helicopter Alert and Threat Termination-Acoustic (Haltt-A) program, the system’s microphones “hear” a round leave a weapon and are capable of fixing the location of the shooter. Four Hallt-A systems are deployed to Afghanistan, according to reports. But if special forces operators are to take advantage of such efforts, it’s going to be in a budgetary environment that is skeptical of new funding. SOC’s fiscal 2012 budget request is $10.5 billion—with $7.2 billion coming in the baseline and $3.3 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations budget. If enacted, this would be an increase of 7% over the fiscal 2011 budget request of $9.8 billion.

Even if spec ops doesn’t have enough rotary-wing assets to fully train with, as McRaven says, those it does have are getting old. And while SOC has installed upgrades on its aging Chinook helicopters, the high operational tempo of a decade of nonstop combat has taken its toll on the fleet.

Updates have been coming, however. In March, Boeing delivered the 61st refitted MH-47G Chinook to SOAR, as part of a multiyear service life extension program that updated the aircraft from the D and E models. SOAR should also receive eight more G models by fiscal 2015. Boeing says the upgrades will increase the platform’s life through the 2030s—when the aircraft will be almost 70 years old.

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